The newly reconstituted Outer Banks Catch organization has gotten a lot of attention in the past few weeks in local media and on social media sites -- and some of it has not been good.
For those of you who are not familiar with Outer Banks Catch, it's an organization that was originally formed by Dare County to promote the sale of locally harvested seafood, the region's commercial fishing heritage, and the diversity of species caught off the Outer Banks.
It has also been a partner in the Outer Banks Seafood Festival, which was started five years ago to showcase local seafood and the area's fishing culture and heritage and to educate the public about commercial fishing. It was also hoped that having the festival in October -- it's on Oct. 16 this year -- would boost businesses in the fall "shoulder season."
Many Hatteras islanders are not as familiar with the seafood festival as are the folks north of Oregon Inlet.
Part of that is geography, and part of that is because Hatteras Island has its own celebration of local watermen -- Day at the Docks -- which was started more than a decade ago and has steadily grown larger with each passing year. It's now a three-day event.
Day at the Docks is in September -- it will be Sept. 15-17 this year -- and perhaps for that reason only a few Hatteras commercial fishermen participate in the Outer Banks Seafood Festival the following month.
The Seafood Festival also features local restaurants serving local seafood -- or maybe just some local seafood -- and I can't remember any Hatteras island restaurants participating, though perhaps some have.
Anyway, the Outer Banks Catch is a really great organization with a terrific mission that benefits not only Dare County but the region, which includes Currituck, Hyde, and Tyrrell counties.
Having it reinvigorated as a private non-profit, with the county's blessing, seems like a great idea.
However, about the same time, the reorganizers were announcing the "new" Outer Banks Catch, the interim executive director, Sandy Semans Ross of Stumpy Point, wrote a letter to Seafood Festival organizers announcing that Outer Banks Catch was withdrawing its participation in the event.
"This action is not being taken lightly," Semans wrote to the Dare County Tourism Board and the Outer Banks Chamber of Commerce. Ross noted that, under county auspices, the Outer Banks Catch had been a founding member of the festival.
The reason that Ross gave for withdrawing support was the lack of local seafood being served at the festival She said that advertising -- including press releases and social media sites -- "have indicated that local seafood is the fare of the day at this event."
"Most of it is not," she said. "The public is being misled."
Festival organizers don't deny that all of the seafood is not local. In an article in the Outer Banks Sentinel, Lee Nettles, executive director of the Outer Banks Visitors Bureau and secretary of the board of directors of the Outer Banks Seafood Festival, said that serving 100 percent local seafood is a "long-term goal" and "an ongoing process."
Seafood festival organizers are not happy since Outer Banks Catch contributed all of the local education effort on commercial fishing at the event -- including exhibits, activities, displays, and talks by local watermen.
There have been negative stories and posts on social media about the new Catch organization and Ross. However, a surprising number of folks who are posting don't see what the problem is.
I'm with them. I really don't get it. Yes, it's unfortunate that Outer Banks Catch says it can't participate in the Seafood Festival, and I am with the folks who hope that can change down the road. But why are some trying to hang the new Outer Banks Catch group out to dry?
First, I will give you the condensed version of the back story on this and then you can decide what you think.
According to Dare County's public information officer, Dorothy Hester, Outer Banks Catch actually grew out of the county's advisory committee on working watermen.
The committee had heard about other "catch" groups along the North Carolina coast and thought it would be a good idea for Dare County. The county applied for and received a grant of $150,000 over several years from Golden Leaf Foundation fund to start the Outer Banks Catch as a regional program that included Currituck, Tyrrell, and Hyde counties.
The fund, Hester said, paid for a contractor to handle the marketing program for several years. When the money ran out, she said, the county public relations department started taking over all the work, which eventually included the Outer Banks Seafood Festival.
After the grant ran out, no county funds were used for Outer Banks Catch, but the program began taking up a lot of staff time. For a while, the public relations department had a "floating" staff member two days a week, but that eventually ended.
Hester said the county decided to spin off the Outer Banks Catch into a reorganized private non-profit and began working toward that goal. Several community members joined the board with getting it accomplished in mind, but gave up -- for one reason or another -- before the work was accomplished.
Outer Banks Catch was languishing, and Hester said that the non-profit North Carolina Catch group got in touch with her over the winter to talk about the state group's interest in keeping the local group going.
"They were concerned about Outer Banks Catch going away," Hester said.
Hester met with the N.C. Catch folks, who, she said, had asked Ross to attend the meeting.
Eventually Ross agreed to become the interim director to get the organization going, though she told me at the time that she did not intend to continue in that role once she had launched the non-profit.
Ross seems to me a good choice for a difficult job that folks were not exactly lining up to take on. She is a retired newspaper editor and free-lance writer who lives in Stumpy Point with her husband, Jay, a commercial fisherman. Her past includes stints working in and writing about commercial fishing. She's been active in many local groups, and, most importantly, she is passionate about the topic of fishing for a living and all that it involves. Her other passion -- transparency in local government -- doesn't hurt in this role either.
The inaugural board of directors includes Amy Gaw, Currituck salt-maker and food writer; Wes Stepp, Dare County restaurant owner; Virginia Tillett, former Dare County commissioner and the widow of a commercial fisherman; John Griffin, Hatteras Island consumer; Jeff Aiken, Dare County fish dealer; and Brandon Marshall, who works in his family’s restaurant, Martell's in Hyde County. A seat designated for a Tyrrell County fisherman remains open.
Ross has registered articles of incorporation for the group as a non-profit with the N.C. Secretary of State, received a federal tax ID number, and started the process of applying for non-profit status.
Once that was accomplished, the county transferred control of such assets as the website, Facebook page, and phone number. Hester said the county also transferred the funds in the group's account to the new group's account.
The check was for $9,891.48, she said, and it included no county funds. The money came from memberships in Outer Banks Catch and from T-shirt sales.
From the beginning, Outer Banks Catch sold memberships to individuals, groups and businesses that wanted to support them, including commercial fishermen, seafood retailers and wholesalers, and restaurants. The group had a program in which restaurants could become members and in exchange be recognized for serving local seafood.
The new Outer Banks Catch will offer different levels of membership. At the "general" level, one locally caught species will be advertised as the OBC special, but now the restaurant will be asked to provide customers with the name of the fisherman who caught it, the dealer who sold it, and the chef who prepared it. The information, Ross says, will be used to advertise the specials at no cost to members and to let the public know that local seafood is available.
The program will continue to include outreach through educational materials in both print and online media, presence at appropriate events, and promoting restaurants that serve local seafood.
Ross has also been criticized for expanding the mission of Outer Banks Catch to include a focus on habitat and water quality. This doesn't make OBC an "environmental organization." It's just a recognition of the importance of both factors in maintaining a robust fishery -- and the need to educate the public about the role they can play in improving both.
Now for the decision that has caused such a stir -- withdrawing from the Seafood Festival.
Outer Banks Catch joined with three other groups -- the Outer Banks Visitors Bureau, the Outer Banks Chamber of Commerce, and the Outer Banks Restaurant Association -- to stage the inaugural Seafood Festival in 2012.
Published news releases from that event promise "top-draw entertainment mixed with great cooking of fresh, local seafood, a bit of education and storytelling about the region's fishing heritage, cooking demonstrations, local craftspeople and a whole lot of family fun."
"Nearly 20 local restaurants," the prepared news releases states, "have committed to serve their signature dishes featuring only fish and seafood caught along the Outer Banks -- resulting in an unmatched 'fusion style' buffet from some of the best restaurants on the beach...."
From the beginning, not all of the seafood served was local for a variety of reasons, but organizers were committed to moving toward that goal.
Ross charges in her letter about the withdrawal that "a very large percentage" of the seafood being sold is imported, including "gassed" tuna that is shot full of carbon monoxide to give it a rosy red color and to hide the age of the fish. Some countries have banned the sale of gassed tuna.
In defense of the fact that not all of the seafood is local, some note that too many local fisheries are closed in October. Ross counters that fresh frozen local seafood is acceptable.
It's also true that imported seafood can be cheaper than locally caught, and the cost of buying seafood for festival-goers is a concern of organizers.
As an aside here, the truth is that some restaurants on the Outer Banks advertise local seafood but also serve imports. Most locals -- and many regular visitors -- recognize this. Some of it is to please customers, who want crab legs and lobster that aren't locally caught. Others find it easier and more economical to serve imports. Some establishments are more upfront about where their seafood comes from than others.
Those who disagree with OBC's decision to withdraw, which Ross said was unanimously approved by the board of directors, have said they feel "blindsided" -- they think Ross wasn't willing to work with them.
Articles and comments on social media are full of the "he said-she said" details of meetings and conversations between Ross and the other groups, which actually shed little light on the dispute.
Instead, it all brings me back to the basic question, "What is all the fuss about?"
Local seafood means local seafood -- serving whatever is available fresh or frozen in October and five years seems like long enough to wait for the Seafood Festival organizers to achieve this goal.
Ross says it can be done, and many -- if not most -- local commercial fishermen agree with her.
It's also worth remembering that the Seafood Festival was designed not just to showcase local seafood but to boost tourism in the shoulder season.
It's interesting to note that the Outer Banks Seafood Festival's non-profit board includes realtors, a banker, and a restaurateur but no representative of the commercial fishing industry. Lee Nettles, executive director of the Outer Banks Visitors Bureau, is secretary of the board of the festival non-profit. Information about the group and the board is available on its website, www.outerbanksseafoodfestival.org.
The Dare County Tourism Board gave a $35,000 event grant to the Seafood Festival non-profit for the festival. In turn, the non-profit has contracted with the Outer Banks Chamber of Commerce to stage the festival -- including planning, managing, staffing, and promoting the event.
The chamber is being paid a base amount -- $12,000 -- and also gets a percentage of the profit from sales at the events and sponsorships.
Despite all the good intentions of the festival organizers, is making money co-opting -- or at least in conflict with -- the original goal of showcasing local seafood?
It's at least worth thinking about.
In the best of all possible worlds, these disagreements will be worked out down the road.
Surely, restaurants can serve enough local seafood to pull this off --- some do it every day.
Finally, best of luck to Ross and the new board of the Outer Banks Catch. We need you.